Suburban People In City Spaces

While I’m trying to find the time to look at the 2016 census data for D.C. (and what that means for housing, density, and so on), there’s a vague thought rattling around in my noggin about a critical element of the housing shortage cities face: cities seem to have a lot of ‘suburban’ people in them. I’m not using suburban as code (though I have before!). What I mean there are many people who live in cities who really aren’t urban people (urban isn’t code either).

A huge component of that difference is the role of the car in your life. Yes, I realize some people who live in cities do need cars for work or life (e.g., disability). But it seems to me the great divide is how you use a car (if you own one at all). Do you use it for leisure or shopping? Does it occur to you to walk for ten or fifteen minutes instead of driving?* It’s ok if you don’t want to live like this: I’m not judging; many city people would chew off their own feet to escape rural or suburban areas. Each to his or her own. But there are people who want to live a car-independent life–and there are environmental advantages to doing so, in terms of clean air and global warming. Yet, as I noted last week, here’s the problem (boldface mine):

The metropolitan Washington region is only 2 percent walkable urban land; the other 98 percent is low-density drivable suburban. The most important criterion in building walkable urban is higher density, but the other issue is, do you have multiple transportation options to get to work, shopping, school, so you’re not just forced to use the car?

…It is almost entirely the high land price in walkable urban places that causes gentrification. Increase the land in metro Washington that’s zoned for walkable urban development from 2 percent to 4 percent, and most of this price premium goes away…

…somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of us want to live and work in walkable urban areas. Whereas only 5 to 20 percent actually can, depending on the metro area. So there’s a gap, known as pent-up demand.

Obviously, some people will choose to live in their less-than-ideal location for various reasons. But the problem is that we simply don’t have enough urban places. Various policies over the last fifty years, with a considerable assist from racism, have actively worked against building more urban spaces: as many planners joke, it would be illegal to build many cities today the way they currently exist. Even when we can, the rent is too damn high (to use a phrase). And a significant part of the rent being too damn high is that too many people in urban areas want to live in suburban-style housing. Every couple of weeks, there’s a Washington Post profile of a neighborhood, and too often, a resident describes how it has a suburban feel. But there are plenty of places in the D.C. area where you can have a suburban feel, but very few where you can have an urban one–and those places need to be kept urban, and even made more dense.

That said, I don’t think MOAR HOUSING will necessarily lower prices, but it might stop them from rising faster than inflation. And if nothing else, more urban settings means more people can live the way they want to live.

*In my experience, looking for parking chews up whatever gains driving might have conferred.

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One Response to Suburban People In City Spaces

  1. kaleberg says:

    It’s illegal to build urban places, even in cities. You have renovate old ones. It’s like elephant ivory. You can only use the stuff that has been grandfathered in.
    As for cars, some people keep them for leisure and shopping. It’s a luxury, but it lets you get to big box stores that have better prices on things. Also, even in cities, there are places that are a lot further by bus and train than by a more direct route, especially if you live in a middle density area like Queens.

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